Looking Inward at Social Justice, Race and Equity

February 10, 2022

Sara Baxter

“Building Community. Kindling Hope. Seeding Change.” That’s the name of the report that was presented to the Brookhaven City Council on Dec. 14 by Brookhaven’s Social Justice, Race and Equity Commission (SJREC). The commission had been charged with “recommending policies and practices to advance social justice and racial equity.”

City of Brookhaven employees
Photo Credit: Chrysalis Lab, Brookhaven GA
The report was a culmination of more than a year’s worth of work involving countless hours, reams of data and a desire by the 37 commission members to bring positive change to Brookhaven around race and equity.

In September 2020, the city council passed a resolution to establish the SJREC, and a call went out for volunteers to serve on the commission. Close to 70 people applied, and 36 were appointed by the city council. Commission members were either city residents or those who had ties to Brookhaven by working for institutions or businesses within city limits. 

“We wanted to be proactive,” said Brookhaven Mayor John. “We pride ourselves on being a welcoming city, but everyone has blind spots. We wanted to take a look at where our blind spots might be.”

To determine the “blind spots,” the city decided to take an “inward” approach.

“We can’t control what’s going on outside of the city,” Ernst said. “It’s important to look at the things we can solve. If, as an organization, you look inward, that’s how you can change things outside.”

“People are talking about social justice, race and equity – individually, at the family level, at their jobs and in churches,” said Brookhaven City Manager Christian Sigman. “So why not be part of the conversation? The city can provide a structure, venue and platform to have those discussions. It’s incumbent upon community leaders to help facilitate those discussions.”

The Process

After it formed, the commission was split into subcommittees to examine four issues through the lens of social justice, race and equity: Hiring and Retention, Mission and Vision, Police Accountability and Legitimacy, and Procurement and Contracting. Each subcommittee was co-chaired by two commissioners, and also had a staff liaison from the city.

“I was very glad the city was taking on what I thought was a courageous and bold step forward for a more equitable Brookhaven,” said Tywana Minor, who served as co-chair of the Hiring and Retention subcommittee. She took over as chair of the SJREC in August 2021 when original chair John Funny stepped down to run for office.  “It’s such a powerful thing when you can be involved in your community, and it made me proud to be a citizen of Brookhaven.”

To help facilitate and support the entire process, the city hired Chrysalis Lab, a consulting firm that specializes in helping leaders create solutions to drive social change. Under the leadership of Co-Founder and Principal Lesley Grady, Chrysalis Lab helped design the structure of the subcommittees and their work, provided detailed agendas, organized the community input process and facilitated the development of recommendations.

City employees attend a class.
Photo Credit: Chrysalis Lab, Brookhaven GA
“We are unbiased facilitators,” Grady said. “We were able to move more easily between different constituencies and have our fingers in all pots. This enabled us to have safe, more direct conversations because we were engaged in all of it. The commissioners were smart, amazing people who were willing to do the work, and we helped make sure they all moved together in getting the work done.”

The city and Chrysalis Lab also partnered with the Kettering Foundation, a national research organization focused on building democracy. They provided professional expertise and access to their data. 

The subcommittees met monthly and spent their time analyzing data – from census reports, city records, city reports and departmental information – to identify any possible inequities. They also looked at best practice current city and departmental processes in Brookhaven and across the country to help make their recommendations.

Another important piece that factored into the recommendations was community input, which Grady and her team helped coordinate through surveys, “pop ups,” community events and civic dinners.

The Recommendations        

At the city council meeting in December, Minor handed out thick books to each council member that detailed the recommendations. The commission made a total of 18 recommendations, which ranged from developing and monitoring equitable recruitment, onboarding and retention policies and practices; conducting an equity review of the city’s charter every five years; consistently capturing and reporting policing data, and committing to awarding a third of all funds spent by the city on procurement and contracting to minority-owned businesses. The city council will vote on all of the recommendations in February.

Advice to Other Cities

All cities are being charged with having the equity conversation,” Grady said. “They can’t avoid it. The question is, how are you going to have it? It is not one size fits all. You have to look at the risk tolerance of a community, then design a set of conversations and activities that meets them where they are.”

Minor believes it’s important for any kind of commission to have a clear understanding of the charge.

“You need to know what your charge is and what the focus areas are and make sure you have the relevant data, which is really vital when making data-driven decisions,” she said. “I also encourage cities to learn from other cities to see what they are doing and look at best practices.”

Sigman hopes that Brookhaven’s citizens see this as an opportunity to become engaged in the future.

“I hope more citizens take advantage of the opportunity to share their voice and passions with their government,” Sigman said. “It’s so hard to get citizens to engage with the city if we don’t have overt problems. But knowing that they can have an impact on things from a social policy perspective, I’m hoping it will invite more voices to the city, which then invites more voices to perhaps be volunteer commission or committee members.”

About the Author
Sara Baxter is a freelance writer based in Decatur, GA. She specializes in telling stories for nonprofit organizations.

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